Penguin Services Editions

Penguin were really the first company to recognise the opportunity for Services Editions, when they launched their Forces Book Club in 1942.   But first to recognise an opportunity is not necessarily first to find the right way to exploit it and for once, Penguin got it badly wrong.   The Forces Book Club was a miserable failure, ending in September 1943 and leaving Penguin with significant quantities of unsold stock.

By that time other companies had stepped into the gap with much better designed schemes.  Both Collins and Guild Books launched long-running series of Services Editions in mid-1943 while Penguin retired to lick its wounds.   But by 1945 the Forces were starting to diversify their suppliers of Services Editions and there was another opportunity for Penguin to come in.

In comparison to Collins and Guild, the series of Penguin Services Editions was short – just 16 books, all issued in 1945 – and it was also quite diverse, in terms of both the format and the range of titles.   Most of the books were in the standard Penguin three-stripe covers, colours depending on genre, but with ‘Services Edition’ added under a line in the middle section, and they were numbered from SE1 upwards.

Penguin SE13

The standard Penguin format for Services Editions

There are however a lot of exceptions to the general rule.   There are books numbered from SE2 to SE9, but there is no SE1 (the book assumed to be SE1 is actually numbered 502) and there are two SE10s but no SE11.  There is no SE14 either, or SE16 or SE17, although SE15 and SE18 exist.    SE3 does not say ‘Services Edition’ on the front, while SE9 does, but without the line above it.  SE18 is in its standard Penguin Classics cover, with no middle stripe, so has ‘Services Edition’ in a different place, and SE10 ‘Within the Tides’, exists in two different covers. Perhaps most oddly of all, Bernard Shaw’s ‘Major Barbara’ exists in a version shown as a Services Edition in its printing history, but otherwise identical to the normal Penguin edition and with a price of 1 shilling marked on the cover.  Services Editions never carried a price as they were not for sale.

  Penguin SE9  Penguin SE3  Penguin SE18

Some of the variation in formats

For a series of just 16 books, this is a lot of errors or a lot of confusion, from a company that normally paid a lot of attention to the consistency of its branding and its numbering.  It almost suggests that Penguin were not taking this venture very seriously.

If one of the key errors Penguin made in the Forces Book Club series was that the choice of books was too serious and too highbrow, they seemed to have learned little in the intervening years.   In fact there seems to have been little thought given to what to publish – they just took whatever was on hand at the time, and it was a thin time.  By Penguin’s standards, they published relatively few books in 1945.   So into the Services Editions went a new translation of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, a Virginia Woolf, three Pelicans, and a biography of Lady Hester Stanhope.  Surely no other publisher would have made a selection like that for a mass-market forces readership.

Penguin SE14

Price of 1/- on the cover, but referred to as a ‘Services Edition’ inside

Copies are still relatively easy to find, much easier than most other Services Editions, and it seems likely that a high proportion of the books were released onto the general market rather than going to service use.  Penguin brought an early end to their series in 1945, while other publishers continued into 1946, so there may have been mutual agreement that it wasn’t really working.  My best guess is that the edition of ‘Major Barbara’ was intended as a Services Edition, but never actually used as one – perhaps withdrawn at the last minute when a decision was taken to end the series, then bound into new covers and issued instead as a normal Penguin.

It seems odd to suggest, but did Penguin produce Services Editions just because it was their patriotic duty?  It certainly seems that their heart wasn’t in it.

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Posted on August 21, 2015, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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